Which two episodes from Pride and Prejudice best help explain the theme of "prejudice" in the novel?
The "prejudice" part of Pride and Prejudice has to do with false expectations. This is not simply a matter of being "prejudiced" against a person—Austen's theme has more to do with self-knowledge, or how what we feel about others can teach us about ourselves.
There are many examples of this in the book. Two that seem to go together are:
- At the ball in Meryton, Darcy is too proud to dance with any of the local girls. Elizabeth overhears him say to Bingley that Elizabeth was the only one worth thinking about, and she was only "tolerable." Darcy is very conscious of his social position, and, while he "seems" to be a prude, has his own burdens of family that he must bear, as we learn later in the novel. Nevertheless, in this scene we can see that he already—against his better judgement—has noticed Elizabeth. Elizabeth, for her part, instantly jumps to the conclusion that Darcy is condescending, rude, and vain.
- When Darcy proposes to Elizabeth for the first time, it is a disaster. For his part, Darcy feels that he is making a tremendous sacrifice in the name of love in offering his hand; Elizabeth, of course, feels very differently. For her, all she can hear is that he will marry her even though her family is beneath him. Rather than be "honored," as Darcy expects, Elizabeth is incensed at his presumption. Her final response to Darcy—“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner"—really stings Darcy.
Other examples that spring to mind are Elizabeth's predisposition to believe Wickham; her assumption that Charlotte's marriage to Mr Collins will be a failure; and her dismissal of Miss Bingley's warning against believing Wickham. However, the two examples above are good to consider because they show how the characters grow over the course of the book. Darcy, to his credit, learns from his mistake about Elizabeth; far from washing his hands of her family, he actively intervenes to save Lydia. Elizabeth comes to understand that Darcy, too, is burdened by his relations (especially Lady Catherine) and finally recognizes him as a deeply honorable man. By coming into an understanding of each other, Darcy and Elizabeth come to understand themselves.